Tiny tech, big applications

Nano Days plants big ideas in youth's minds

In your hand it looks like any other ordinary metal spring, right?



That little spring is made of memory metal — Nitinol to be precise — and it can do amazing things, explains Alan Warwick.

You stretch the spring out between your hands, and Warwick holds a hairdryer beneath it.

“See how much force there is?” he says.

That’s astonishing, you think. You try, but the little spring in your fingers pulls you hands together as the hairdryer heats it.

“There can be a lot of force. Each molecule has a bit of strength,” he says.

That little spring composed of Nitinol — part nickel and titanium — holds two states, he says: one when it is cold, and one when it is hot. When stretched out cold, its molecules retain that shape. But when heated, its molecules pull the spring together, remembering its other state.

“They can make alloys that can pull upwards of 10,000 pounds,” he said.

You struggle to lift your jaw that has dropped to the floor.

Warwick, along with about a dozen other instructors, was sitting at a table in a room full of other examples of nanotechnology at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska’s Nano Day educational workshop on Friday. Children and their parents walked from table to table, examining each station.

CEO Marnie Olcott said the goal of the event is to introduce youth to nanotechnology and show them its relevant applications.

Nitinol is used, for example, in products as simple as eyeglass frames or bra underwiring but also in solar panels for certain space ships. When the sun heats the metal up, it vibrates the panels to shake off space dust, Warwick said.

Other nanotechnology examples at the event were miniature drone robots, stealth technology, gold and near-infrared cancer cell treatment and nano harddrives.

“We want to get them excited about it … so they understand the need to stay in school so they can study the technology,” Olcott said.

Theresa Salzetti, who brought her two daughters to the event, said Nano Days does that well.

“It’s always a fun thing for the kids. There’s so many applications they’re sharing here with the kids,” Kenai resident Salzetti said. “They can now make the real-world connection.

Her 15-year-old daughter Mikaela, who is interested in engineering, said she could foresee using the nano-computer technology at one of the tables in a future project, maybe a quantum computer.

“It reminds me of Macgyver,” said Maria Salzetti, 12, about the memory metal spring. “It’s like how he uses technology to solve problems.”


Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.